IDA Awards: 'The Look of Silence' and Other Oscar-Shortlisted Docs Make Strong Showing (Analysis)

The IDA and Academy both gave their top doc prize to 'Citizenfour' last year, but their overall track record when it comes to overlapping is a bit spottier, for reasons explained by THR's awards analyst.
Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media
'The Look of Silence'

A handful of the 15 films that made the Academy's best documentary feature Oscar shortlist on Dec. 1 were among the big winners at Saturday night's 31st IDA Documentary Awards, presented by International Documentary Association on the Paramount lot.

Best feature went to The Look of Silence, the second part of Josh Oppenheimer's diptych about the Indonesian genocide, coming two years after the first film, The Act of Killing, was nominated for but lost both the IDA and Academy's top doc prizes. Listen to Me Marlon, Stevan Riley's chronicle of the life of Marlon Brando that uses the legendary actor's own words, won best writing. And Best of Enemies, from Oscar winner Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) and Robert Gordon, won best music and was presented with the ABC News VideoSource Award.

Additionally, Matt Heineman was awarded the Courage Under Fire Award for his gutsy efforts to chronicle vigilantism on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border in Cartel Land. And Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for Netflix — which has two docs on the Academy's shortlist, Liz Garbus' What Happened, Miss Simone? and Evgeny Afineevsky's Winter on Fire — was presented with the Pioneer Award, a sign of appreciation for the fact that the streaming service has become one of the leading distribution outlets for docs.

Plus, Last Day of Freedom, an animated doc short that is on the Academy's shortlist of 10 pics from which its five best documentary short film Oscar nominees will be chosen, won best short.

The question these films' makers and distributors undoubtedly would like answered, though, is whether or not the IDA results can be interpreted as a sign of strength — or boon to their prospects — with the Academy. And the answer is ... sort of.

The IDA, which was founded in 1982 and screens films and provides educational opportunities for its members throughout the year, has a membership of more than 20,000, making it the largest organization of doc filmmakers out there. A small portion of them screened hundreds of titles and determined the IDA's nominees, and then the entire membership was invited to vote online to determine the winners.

The Academy's doc branch, which has fewer than 300 members, determines the best doc feature and short Oscar shortlists and nominees — but, as of the 85th Oscars, the final round of voting is open to the entire Academy, which numbers around 7,000, most of whom have nothing to do with the making of docs and few of whom bother to watch all of the nominees before voting. That's why the titles with the highest profiles and/or most widely appealing subject matter have prevailed in the years since.

Last year's best feature IDA Award winner, Citizenfour, did go on to win the best doc feature Oscar — but this century, the same can be said for only three other IDA winners: Born Into Brothels (2004), Man on Wire (2008) and Searching for Sugar Man (2012). Of the other IDA winners in the 2000s — and there frequently were "ties" in the early years — only five others went on to land Oscar noms: Children Underground (2001), Balseros (2002), Iraq in Fragments (2006), Waste Land (2010) and The Square (2013)

I point out these stats not to question the IDA's judgment, which in many cases has been markedly better than the Academy's — IDA winners that were not even nominated by the Academy's doc branch include the wonderful Startup.com (2001), Crazy Love (2007) and Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008) — but rather to note that the Academy's doc branch can be quite conservative in its choices compared to the larger doc community, as represented by the IDA.

For the record, this year's IDA winners that didn't find a place on the Academy's shortlist include Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (best editing) and The Russian Woodpecker (best cinematography).

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